Orkney Houses

One thing that I really like about going to visit new places is the different types of houses that have been built there. Most places have their own distinctive style, or they did have before the 1960-s anyway.

The wee house below is at Skara Brae and is used as a teeny exhibition centre. It is obviously well maintained which is just as well as it is more or less right on the beach and the weather is often wild.
a house a Skara Brae

Sadly the Orkney islanders have mainly opted for warmth and comfort in recent years, not that I blame them as I have recently done that too. But a lot of traditional houses on Orkney have just been abandoned and are now ruins. Every since I was a wee girl I’ve had an urge to bring any derelict houses I see back to life, it seems such a shame to me to leave a house standing empty, especially nowadays when there are so many homeless people around, but that doesn’t apply in Orkney I hope. The ruin below is just above the beach near Skara Brae.

ruin  near Skara Brae
Even I have to admit that it’s probably a wee bit too far gone, the location is great though.
a ruin

It looks like most of the local buildings have been built from stones taken off the beaches, there are certainly plenty of them where you can just pick up perfectly flat straight stones. Some houses that aren’t that far gone in dereliction still have their stone roof more or less intact.

In some ways the old buildings are quite similar to newbuilds now as small windows were preferred, presumably to keep the cold and wind out as much as possible. I was very taken by the house below which I managed to snap while Jack was driving past it. If I had a flagpole I’d be very tempted to fly a Jolly Roger/pirate flag from it too! That house has been harled/cement rendered to try to keep the weather out and preserve the stone underneath.

Pirate flag

I think it might be possible to rebuild these old homes, using a modern house structure as a sort of lining, all well insulated of course. Then you could have the best of both worlds – a lovely quaint building with character and the warmth of a modern home. I’d be tempted to give it a go – if Orkney wasn’t so far away.

The house in the photo below is now used for storage I think.

an old house in Stromness

The building below may have been just for storage or animals, on the other hand, if there are a few wee windows on the other side, it might have been a house at some point in the past. It has a slate roof though, not stone.

Orkney buildings
People in Orkney are very friendly, well the ones we met were anyway. One windy evening we were walking along the back road, struggling with a small map we had been given, and a motorist stopped to ask if he could help us. We told him we were looking for the location of Norna of the Fitful Head‘s home. She was a character in Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate. As it happened the friendly gentleman had built his house right at what had been Norna’s gate, but of course her house was no longer standing. It was probably just by the escallonia bush on the right below.

Bitsy Miller

Sir Walter Scott had based his character Norna on Betty Miller (the motorist called her Bitsy) who was a sort of white witch who made her living selling ‘fair winds’ to sailors, apparently at sixpence a wind, a lot of money in those days. With sailors being superstitious and fearful of rough weather, she did a good trade in fair winds which I think she sold to the sailors in a piece of cloth. It was an ingenious way of making a living, even better than the snake oil merchants of America’s wild west. As you can see from the photo below, the motorist has named his house Fairwinds, in memory of her.

Bitsy Miller

There are ruins all over the place, often with a modern-ish house very close by, they have just built the new home in the garden of the old one. It’s quite difficult to take photos of places on Orkney though as often there is no suitable stopping place and the roads are very narrow with passing places, so stopping would cause a traffic jam.

The photo below is of Stromness from the south. If you’re interested in Polar exploration – this is the harbour that Captain Cook’s ships Discovery and Resolution called in at to replenish their stores of fresh water and food.

Stromness from south

The well they used was sealed up in 1931 and as you can see they now have it covered to protect it.

Well for sailors

Highland River by Neil M. Gunn

Highland River cover

Highland River by Neil M. Gunn won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1937 and I’m trying to make my way through as many of the winners as possible. It’ll be a long haul as there are a lot of them.

This is just the third book by Gunn that I’ve read, I think so far The Silver Darlings is my favourite.

Highland River is set around the Dunbeath area of the Scottish Highlands.

It’s really the story of Gunn’s childhood. It was a hand to mouth existence and the story begins with Kenn being sent out in the dark of early morning to get water from the well situated near a pool. It’s freezing and Kenn slips and falls in the water, but in doing so he realises that a huge salmon has become trapped in the pool, and so begins a battle to catch it with his hands. This is an aspect of the book that reccurs time and time again, in fact too much for me, it might appeal to those who are interested in unusual fishing techniques.

The Scottish Highland childhood chapters are interspersed with chapters about Kenn and his brother’s experiences in the trenches of World War 1 and I would have been happier with the book if there had been more of those. Gunn never was involved in that war though so he probably felt he was better off sticking to writing about what he knew about. He was a customs officer/excise man from 1910 until he was able to earn enough from his writing to become a full time writer in 1937.

He was active politically and was a member of the National Party for Scotland part of which later became the Scottish National Party. He died in 1973.

As it happens, when we were travelling home from our recent trip to Orkney we stopped off at Dunbeath which is a very small place, but is in a beautiful area of Caithness. They’re proud of their ‘local hero; and have erected a statue of Kenn with his massive salmon, a scene from this book. The photo below is of the river that runs through Dunbeath, it’s called Dunbeath Water, and is presumably the Highland river from the title.

Dunbeath Water

There’s also this lovely statue of Kenn and his salmon, a scene from the book.
Kenn + Salmon

I also read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge and it’s one of my 20 Books of Summer.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

 His Bloody Project cover

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet was of course shortlisted for the Booker prize, I haven’t read any of the others shortlisted or indeed the winner but I can’t imagine that they would have been as good as this one. Burnet portrays Culduie and its surrounding areas and inhabitants so well, down to the rivalry that there often is between one settlement and the nearest neighbouring one, who tend to be seen as barbarians for some reason. The book is set towards the late 1860s and it’s 1869 when everything comes to a head.

The subtitle of the book is Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae. More than half of the book is written by seventeen year old Roderick Macrae who is in a prison cell in Inverness, accused of the murder of three of his neighbours. Roderick has admitted to the deed, in fact he could hardly deny it as he had walked through the tiny hamlet of Culduie in the Highlands – covered in their blood.

After a campaign of bullying by Lachlan Broad – the local constable and a figure of authority tasked with seeing that the inhabitants of Culduie kept the area in order – Roddy snapped, the last straw being when an eviction order was delivered to his father.

Roddy’s relationship with his father was a strained one, which only got worse after the death of his mother who had been a bit of a buffer for him, protecting Roddy from the worst excesses of his father’s Presbyterian strictness which included beating Roddy on a weekly basis for no real reasons.

Roddy’s advocate hopes to prove that his client committed the murders when he was more mad than bad, it’s the only thing that will save him from the gallows.

But when it comes to the actual trial Roddy’s account of things doesn’t tally with the forensic evidence from the bodies. Something doesn’t quite add up.

Of course there’s a lot more to this book than that, but as ever I don’t want to give a blow by blow account of it. It’s a great read though, but not exactly an uplifting one.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge. Jack has read it too.

Read Scotland 2016 Challenge

I’ve really enjoyed doing the Read Scotland Challenge this year and I’m definitely doing it again in 2017. I managed to read thirty-five books by Scottish authors or with a Scottish setting or link. I’ve been fairly strict with myself though as I’ve just finished reading a book by an author who according to the back blurb now lives in Glasgow, but there was nothing Scottish in her book so I’m not counting that one at all.

I’m going to be compiling a list soon of some of the Scottish books I plan to read in 2017. It’ll include a few classics by Sir Walter Scott and R.L. Stevenson and I think some other people doing the challenge will be doing a readalong at some point, RLS’s The Black Arrow has been mentioned as a possibility, it’s a historical adventure set at the time of The Wars of the Roses. It’ll be different anyway!

1. Beneath the Abbey Wall by A.D. Scott
2. The Factory on the Cliff by A. G. MacDonell
3. Lament for a Maker by Michael Innes
4. Night and Silence by Aline Templeton
5. A Life, Josephine Tey by Jennifer Morag Henderson
6. Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party by Alexander McCall Smith
7. Murder at the Loch by Eric Brown
8. The Moon King by Neil Williamson
9. Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart
10. Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell
11. Water on the Brain by Compton Mackenzie
12. Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
13. Cork on the Water by Macdonald Hastings
14. The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald
15. Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart
16. Crossriggs by Jane and Mary Findlater
17. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
18. The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett
19. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
20. Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne
21. Candleshoe by Michael Innes
22. Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart
23. The Land the Ravens Found by Naomi Mitchison
24. England Their England by A.G. Macdonell
25. Kate Hardy by D.E. Stevenson
26. The Revolving Door of Life by Alexander McCall Smith
27. The Rival Monster by Compton Mackenzie
28. Furnished for Murder by Elizabeth Ferrars
29. A Smile in One Eye a Tear in the Other by Ralph Webster
30. Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson
31. After the Dance by Iain Crichton Smith
32. Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett
33. Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher
34. Dandy Gilver and A Most Misleading Habit by Catriona McPherson
35. Glasgow Interiors by Helen Kendrick

‘Glenbogle’ Ardverikie Estate, Scottish Highlands

a Glenbogle 1

On our recent trip up to the Highlands with Peggy we were driving along admiring the views, well Jack couldn’t do so much admiring because he had to concentrate on the driving, when Peggy remarked that a lodge house we had just passed looked like the one from the TV programme Monarch of the Glen. When we saw a sign by the side of a few shops saying Glenbogle – she just about went off the scale of excitement! It is in fact Ardverikie estate and the loch is called Loch Laggan. The series was based on the books by Compton Mackenzie.

Glenbogle/Ardverikie estate

That road is pretty twisty turny but we did find a lay-by to stop off in and we climbed under/over the crash barrier and down a steep thistle and nettle edged path to reach the edge of the loch. As you can see we had a great day for sightseeing.

Glenbogle /Ardverikie estate

What a view the owners have from their home, I believe it was on the market a few years ago – asking price a mere 7 million quid. I wonder if it is now owned by a Russian oligarch or some such. The house is built in the Scottish baronial style, very popular in Victorian times.

I spotted the wee jetty that features in the programme too but seem to have managed to miss it of the few photos I took. I hope Peggy managed to get it.

The beach is my kind of beach with lovely glittering mica laden stones with bits of pink granite scattered around too. But we couldn’t linger all that long as we wanted to reach Dornie where our B&B accomodation awaited us. We did plan to go past ‘Glenbogle’ again and check out the few shops nearby but a slight change in the route back meant that we somehow missed the turn off. Ah well – maybe next time.

Abernethy, in Perth and Kinross

Abernethy in Perth and Kinross is a fairly ancient place as you can see from the Pictish tower in the photo below. Sadly that white van on the right was there for the duration of our visit.

Abernethy  Round Tower 1

We climbed all the way to the top of the tower. It has a modern metal spiral staircase which ends in a ladder leading to the top of the tower and you go up to it through a hatch. It’s not for the faint-hearted as it’s a very long way up – and down! Sir Walter Scott actually mentions this tower in his book The Antiquary. You can see more photos of the tower here. I was surprised to see a set of ‘jougs’ attached to the stonework. It’s a metal sort of dog collar on the end of a chain that was fitted around the neck of any naughty locals who were thought to be in need of punishment.

Abernethy  View 1

You get a good view of the surrounding area from the top though. You can just about see the Rivers Tay/Earn at Carpow from there and that is where a 3,000 year old logboat was discovered buried in mud a few years ago. The boat was originally preserved and on display in Perth Museum but is has been moved to Edinburgh now. You can see it here.

Abernethy  View 2

Of course the confluence of two rivers has always been seen as being a magical place by our ancestors but I love that the Romans also decided that Carpow would be a good place to set up a camp about a thousand years later.

Abernethy is a teeny wee village with just one shop but it has an interesting graveyard and if you visit then make sure that you pay a visit to the museum which has varied exhibits and particularly a lot of information on what went on in Abernethy during the wars. It was one of those places that was ‘taken by storm’ by the Polish Free Army, as one old lady friend of mine said of her home town of Kelso. All those clicking heels and bowing to kiss hands meant that any local men still living in the place didn’t get a look in. I imagine it was much the same in Abernethy.

The museum is run by very friendly and helpful volunteers.

Short break and trip ideas in Scotland

If you’re looking for short break and trip ideas in Scotland you might be interested in this link. You’ll find seven incredible trip you could take this weekend (if you are lucky enough to be in Scotland of course)

I love bridges and the Clachan Bridge on the Isle of Seil in the photo below looks like something out of a fairy tale illustration to me.

clachan bridge

Fair Helen by Andrew Greig

 Fair Helen cover

Fair Helen by Andrew Greig was published in 2013 and the setting is the Scottish Borders. Elizabeth the First of England is coming to the end of her life and James VI of Scotland is waiting impatiently to inherit the English crown.

The story is written around the Border Ballad Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea which is a Scottish version of Romeo and Juliet and the tale is told by Harry Langton who is Helen’s cousin and a friend of Adam, the young man Helen is in love with. But it’s a time of political turmoil, with Border reiving (raiding) still common practice amongst the families living on each side of the Border. They are all controlled by a ‘heidsman’ really just a gang leader.

Helen’s parents intend to marry her off to Robert Bell, he’s ambitious and very violent, and Harry Langton has to act as a look-out when Adam and Helen have their secret meetings. Harry isn’t exactly a hardman though and he ends up getting duffed up by Bell’s minions, but we know that he has survived to old age as he is narrating the story as an old man. Although not a natural fighter he is taught to fight and does take part in a hot-trod which is what they called legitimate hot pursuit, but of course each family regarded every raid as being legitimate. It was a means of surviving in a harsh environment.

This book reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of King’s although that one is set earlier in Henry VIII time. Greig’s language is earthier but I’m sure that it is more authentic. There is a lot of dialogue in Scots dialect but there is a glossary at the back of the book for those who don’t know the Scots words, it wasn’t a problem for me of course. I read Fair Helen as part of the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

Jack recommended that I read this book, he rates Andrew Greig’s writing very highly, I think I’ve read three or four of his books now and they have all been very different but his writing is very good, very Scottish and very literary but not in a dry way. Harry Langton is a devotee of Michel de Montaigne and other philosophers, so I was really pleased that I had recently read a book about Montaigne. You can read Jack’s much more thorough review here.

The Birks of Aberfeldy

The Birks  of Aberfeldy

One day last week we decided to drive up north of Perth to Aberfeldy, it’s definitely the Highlands. Well it was a lovely day, if a bit cold, but it was just so wonderful to see some blue sky and – no rain.

The Birks  of Aberfeldy

The Birks  of AberfeldyThe Birks  of Aberfeldy

I had been to Aberfeldy before but hadn’t been to The Birks of Aberfeldy, it’s a woodland walk, or maybe I should say climb as it is much steeper than I thought it would be. We walked up the right hand path, which turned out to be the correct decision as the walk is a big loop and on the way back down the other side it was a bit harder on the legs as there are a lot of steps which are really quite steep, I’m always happier going up than going down, you are much more in control on the way up anywhere I think. I had to hang on to handrails quite often as there was also quite a lot of snow and ice around. It was tougher going than I expected, but we’ll be going back in the spring or summer to see what it looks like then, with the deciduous trees doing their stuff, and it should be an easier walk then.
The Birks  of Aberfeldy
It’s a lovely area but to be honest there are lots of places in Scotland like this, trees, a steep hillside and rushing water and waterfalls, the difference with this one is that Robert Burns wrote a poem about it in 1787 and set it to a previous tune. He was a great collector of old Scottish tunes.

The Birks  of Aberfeldy

The Birks  of Aberfeldy and Robert Burns
Above is a grim photo of me, sitting beside a statue of Robert Burns, it was apparently his favourite spot.

Below is the view from that bench.

The Birks  of Aberfeldy

Below is the poem he wrote.

Now simmer blinks on flow’ry braes,
And o’er the crystal streamlet plays,
Come, let us spend the lightsome days
In the birks of Aberfeldie!
Bonnie lassie, will ye go,
Will ye go, will ye go,
Bonnie lassie, will ye go
To the birks of Aberfeldie?

The little birdies blithely sing,
While o’er their heads the hazels hing;
Or lightly flit on wanton wing
In the birks of Aberfeldie!
Bonnie lassie, will ye go…

The braes ascend like lofty wa’s,
The foaming stream, deep-roaring, fa’s,
O’er-hung wi’ fragrant spreading shaws,
The birks of Aberfeldie.
Bonnie lassie, will ye go…

The hoary cliffs are crown’d wi’ flowers,
White o’er the linns the burnie pours,
And, rising, weets wi’ misty showers
The birks of Aberfeldie.
Bonnie lassie, will ye go…

Let Fortune’s gifts at random flee,
They ne’er shall draw a wish frae me,
Supremely blest wi’ love and thee
In the birks of Aberfeldie.
Bonnie lassie, will ye go…

In case you don’t know and haven’t guessed birks are birch trees.

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

Consider the Lilies cover

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith was first published in 1968 and it appears in the list of Top 100 Scottish Books.

On the surface the book is about the Highland Clearances, a time when landowners (lairds) in Scotland decided that they could make much more money from their land from sheep farming rather than getting rents from crofters who were scraping an existence from the small patches of poor quality land which they were tending. The crofters were forcibly evicted from their cottages which were set fire to and pulled down so they couldn’t go back. Lots of them ended up emigrating to Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand, where they often ended up living equally harsh lives in an even more hostile environment. It’s often supposed that the landlords were English but that certainly wasn’t normally the case, although they may have been educated in England. Many clan chiefs were eager to make money in the very lucrative sheep/wool market and didn’t care who they damaged in the meantime. It was more of a class war than an English versus Scottish thing.

Anyway, back to the book, it’s really about the hard and unforgiving Calvinist Presbyterian religion which ruled the lives of the ordinary people. Their religious teaching and upbringing was so rigid and strict that all of the joy was sucked out of life. No singing, no dancing, just church and prayers and an almost masochistic attitude to life, Everything should be hard and cruel, or it wasn’t worth attaining. The minister was looked up to as being high above his parishioners who he berated as sinners despite the fact that they were all really innocent souls, certainly in comparison with most church ministers. Yet that background did seem to breed very imaginative writers. So many of the classics were written by Scots or those with Scottish parents. Such as J.M. Barrie, R.L. Stevenson. A.A. Milne, George MacDonald and lots more. A strict upbringing bred a fantastic imagination it would seem.

This is the sort of environment which old Mrs Scott had grown up in. Not long before she turned 30 she had married a man a few years younger than her, he had had a less rigid life and was more like some of the gipsies who wandered around the Highlands, so it was never going to be a match made in heaven. Alasdair had the spirit of adventure about him and after the birth of their son Iain he joined the army as a volunteer in the local duke’s regiment, who was of course the laird. Alasdair never came back from the Peninsular War, he died in battle in Spain, so Murdina (Mrs Scott) has to bring Iain up on her own with no help from anyone – despite being told by the Duke that she would receive a pension, she never did. She’s determined that Iain won’t turn out to be like his father and gives him a miserable and joyless childhood, just like her own and of course when he’s old enough he gets out as fast as he can, just as his father did. Still Murdina can see nothing wrong with her outlook on life, but when a man comes to visit her on a white horse and tells her that she will have to leave her house she can’t believe that the duke would do anything so awful to her.

She goes to see the minister to ask him for help but the minister isn’t interested in helping anyone, he’s on the side of the powerful and rich duke and Murdina at last begins to think for herself and realises what a hypocrite the man is. He doesn’t even know her name and she had held him in such high esteem all those years.

In the end it’s Donald MacLeod who helps Murdina when she needs it most, and she had always seen him as an emissary of the devil as he never went to church and would have nothing to do with the minister. He wrote political pamphlets and articles for newspapers which would be regarded as incendiary by the land owning class, but despite his supposed atheism it’s Donald who is the decent man. The experiences change Murdina’s attitude completely and instead of only seeing the bad in things she can at last see the good side. She’s cured of negative Presbyterianism.

This is a really good read, apart from telling of a hugely important part of Scotland’s history it also goes a long way to explaining the Calvinist atmosphere of Scotland which still exists today, where you can seriously say that even the Roman Catholics have a Presbyterian streak in them, you just can’t help being influenced by it.

There are some annoying anachronisms in this book as for some reason Crichton Smith didn’t think that it was important to be careful with the historical facts and so it is impossible that Mrs Scott’s husband would have been killed in the war which he was killed in. Also it is mentioned that she had food boiling in pots on Sunday and that just did not happen. No food was cooked on a Sunday, it was pre cooked on Saturday and it was just cold leftovers on Sunday. The Sabbath couldn’t be broken for anything and it was still like that in the 1970s on Skye. People who had to get water from a well always got their water on Saturday night, for washing/drinking purposes and for the animals as they wouldn’t even pull water from a well on a Sunday, it was for Bible reading only.

Jack’s review of this book is here.

It’s a weird thing, almost like that 3 buses coming along at the same time, but it often happens that completely unintentionally I end up reading a series of books which have similar themes – one after the other. I had read Annie S. Swan’s book Mistaken – which almost reads like a religious tract. Then I read this one with its Calvinist theme. So I thought to myself: I’m going to read something completely different – to get out of this religious atmosphere. So a couple of days ago I started reading Anthony Trollope’s Linda Tressel. If you’ve read it you’ll have realised that I didn’t escape religion as that book is about a young woman being completely ground down by her madly Calvinistic aunt, despite the Bavarian setting. I feel that somebody is out to get me!

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge.